HOUSTON — It was a scene replayed with alarming frequency in Texas: a 46-year-old man walked out of prison here Friday afternoon after spending 23 years behind bars for a sex crime that the evidence suggests he did not commit.While the jury's decision to convict Sonnier may have required the victim's testimony related to identification the underlying cause of this conviction and any related injustice cannot be placed on the victim's shoulders.
The man, Ernest Sonnier, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison largely on the strength of the victim’s testimony, even though the forensic evidence gathered from her body and clothes showed that someone with a blood type different from the defendant’s had raped her, lawyers from the Innocence Project in New York said.
A bad solution to this problem is to toss out or ignore all victim and eye-witness IDs unless they are backed by DNA evidence. This does nothing more than replace one bad system for another. Only in this case those harmed, possibly irreversibly, are the innocent victims and potential future victims of violent criminals.
The blood type mismatch in this case is important, however since there were 2 rapists not one, this evidence may not have been sufficient to exclude Sonnier if the lab couldn't clearly identify that the samples which didn't match Sonnier came from both rapists.
The Houston crime lab which originally processed the forensic evidence in this case has been the center of controversy. However, most of the attention has been focused on how this impacts innocent defendants while sloppy handling and storage of evidence can sometimes help guilty defendants or be used to needlessly undermine the accurate testimony of crime victims.
Unfortunately, Victim scapegoating for unjust convictions has a long history. If some rape victims stop trusting what the system says about their cases many people are quick to condemn those victims rather than seeing how pervasive systematic problems can raise reasonable doubts in crime victims minds about the accuracy of the results of newer forensic testing which exclude the person convicted.
While doubt about the accuracy of evidence used in convictions is widely acceptable, doubt about the accuracy of evidence used in exonerations is not acceptable since it goes against the prevailing narrative that the criminal justice system's forensic errors are one-sided.
Victims may fear that the material being tested decades after the crime has been tainted or is not from their case. If these fears match what happened in their cases then a crime victim's justified refusal to agree that the system now finally has it right can be wrongfully used as proof that the victim is a proven liar or is incompetent to speak about what was done to her (or to him).
The process for identifying suspects can lead to skewed outcomes even if no injustice is intended. Thankfully there has been extensive research which shows how to avoid leading victims to a particular person viewed by police as the prime suspect or the only suspect. But the best research is useless if the results of that research don't permeate our criminal justice system.
Flawed or now outmoded ID processes can also result in correct identifications so a flawed process is not in itself reasonable doubt.
In Timothy Cole's wrongful rape conviction one of key pieces of evidence which was ignored was that the rapist was a chain smoker while Cole didn't smoke at all. This identifying information was provided by the victim and should have eliminated Cole from consideration before his picture was shown to the victim. She didn't learn that Cole had asthma and was a non-smoker until long after the conviction and did not have access to other details of the investigation.
Yet many people have talked about her and other rape victims as if they can get every detail about their case if they just show some interest and ask. This isn't true. A woman who reported being raped in Tampa, Florida and was jailed on an outstanding warrant related to unpaid fines went to court seeking access to her case files because the police refused her lawyer's request. That effort proved unsuccessful. And this is in a case where the police made public statements which implied that this woman made a false report even though they acknowledged that they didn't have enough evidence to charge her.
Despite cases where those who report are locked out or simply ignored, some people will incorrectly say that the victims are the ones who prosecuted their cases. This assumption is seen when men who have been acquitted of rape have named alleged or confirmed rape victims in wrongful prosecution lawsuits such as in civil suits filed in Michigan and the UK.
Those who disagree with not allowing rape victims to be included in these types of lawsuits are likely forgetting that if the door opens to sue rape victims for malicious prosecution then the door is opened to sue all crime victims and prosecution witnesses if the person suing was acquitted, had a conviction overturned for any reason or was exonerated.
h/t: Grits for breakfast